Washington, George

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

George Washington

Born February 22, 1732
Pope's Creek Plantation, Virginia
Died December 14, 1799
Mount Vernon, Virginia

First president of the United States,
military leader, farmer, surveyor

George Washington is one of the greatest soldier-statesmen the United States has ever produced. He led his country to victory in the American Revolution, helped draft the U.S. Constitution, served as first president of the new nation, and established a lasting reputation for honesty, heroism, dedication, and service.

George Washington was born at Pope Creek Plantation in northeastern Virginia on February 22, 1732. His parents were Augustine Washington and his second wife, Mary Ball. Washington had two older half-brothers, Lawrence and Augustine, and five younger brothers and sisters: Betty, Samuel, John Augustine, Charles, and Mildred (who died as a baby).

When Washington was three, his family moved to a farm called Little Hunting Creek, and then to Ferry Farm. Washington's boyhood included much time spent outside in the fields and woods, a love that stayed with him all his life.

Washington's father died when the boy was only eleven, and the family had to manage their money carefully. Like many farm boys of the time, it is likely that Washington was taught at home before he entered the small school in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which was across the river from Ferry Farm. This was the only formal education Washington ever had, and it was limited. He learned math, reading, history, and geography, but not foreign languages, literature, or the arts. His education reinforced Washington's natural inclination to be methodical and detail oriented. At the same time, he was learning to manage a plantation (a large farm) that produced tobacco, fruit, vegetables, and grain.

His older brother, Lawrence, encouraged George to read to fill in the blanks in his education. Washington did so throughout his life, researching and reading about every new situation he faced, from military tactics to politics to farming. "I conceive that a knowledge of books is the basis on which all other knowledge rests," he would later write to a friend. As a youth, Washington spent a great deal of time at his brother Lawrence's home, Little Hunting Creek, which would later be called Mount Vernon. His days there opened a new world to George, including foxhunting, theater, dancing, and the art of conversation. At Mount Vernon, George met and mingled with the families of upper-class Virginia plantation owners, learning to mimic their way of talking, dressing, and acting. Before Lawrence died in 1752, he arranged that eventually Mount Vernon would belong to George.

When he was about fifteen, Washington's school days ended. He took a job as a surveyor, a person who measured land plots so they could be sold, to help support his mother and younger brothers and sisters. In 1748 Washington's work as a surveyor took him into western Virginia, near what was then the American frontier. In 1749 the young Washington was appointed surveyor for Culpeper County in Virginia. This position gave him a steady income and a chance to purchase land. Eventually these purchases would make Washington one of the largest landowners in all of Virginia.

Washington's journeys and his brother Lawrence's war stories (he had served in a British unit in a brief war against the French) made the young Washington think about a military career. In colonial America, the British military protected the people in the more populated areas while American-born officers and soldiers called militia helped guard farms and communities on the edge of the frontier. Washington decided that he would apply to the governor of Virginia for a militia command, and in 1752 he was appointed a major of an American regiment in southern Virginia.

In the fall of 1753, when the governor needed a volunteer to carry a message to the French in Ohio, Washington volunteered. The governor wanted French soldiers to remove themselves from the Ohio River Valley, which he considered to be part of Virginia. After a difficult trip, Washington delivered the message. When the French commander refused to leave, Washington carried this news back to Virginia. Upon Washington's recommendation, Fort Prince George was built at what is now Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a signal to the French that the Americans would not give up this rich fur-trading territory.

French and Indian War

After this mission, Washington was promoted to lieutenant colonel and he set about recruiting men to man Fort Prince George. He learned that American soldiers were not paid as much as British soldiers, his first taste of the inequity that would continue to trouble the Americans. The fort fell to the French in the spring of 1754, and they renamed it Fort Duquesne (pronounced doo-KANE). Washington's men built another, named Fort Necessity, which was lost to the stronger French force in July 1754. Washington's engagement with the French was the first skirmish in what became the French and Indian War (1756–63).

Neither the British military nor the American colonial government held Washington's lack of success against him. Instead, they praised his fearlessness in battle and his good leadership style. However, Washington resigned from the militia when he learned that his rank would be reduced so that British officers could always have a higher rank than the colonial officers.

Washington had another chance to learn about military life and the conduct of war. He volunteered to be an aide to General Edward Braddock, who had come from England to fight the French. Braddock, who might have learned something from Washington, chose to disregard the advice of this soldier who had fought the Indians on their home ground. Braddock and most of his soldiers were wiped out in an assault in 1755 on Fort

Duquesne (it was rebuilt as Fort Pitt after the French burned it in 1758). Washington brought the surviving men to Virginia. By the time he retired from the French and Indian War, Washington was the American colonies' first real hero. He was also the American most acquainted with soldiering.

Life as a Virginia planter

Washington hung up his sword and settled down to run Mount Vernon, which he inherited in 1761. At the age of twenty-seven, he married a pretty widow named Martha Dandridge Custis. Martha had two children, John "Jackie" Custis and Martha "Patsy" Custis. Washington's main focus for the next fourteen years was on being a loving husband and stepfather, a farmer who experimented with crops and raising animals, a local judge, and a member of the House of Burgesses (the local Virginia government, which met in Williamsburg, Virginia).

As a member of colonial government, Washington grew familiar with the democratic process first hand. He also met and grew to know many of the men who would lead the American Revolution, including Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry (see entries).

Trouble with Britain

At the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, Great Britain won huge tracts of land in Canada and the United States. Now burdened with heavy war debts, the British thought it only fair to tax the Americans to help pay for managing the new lands. Unfortunately, the tax laws were passed in London, where the British government met. The Americans were not consulted and they bitterly resented this.

By this time, the thirty-one-year-old Washington was an imposing figure. His uniforms were tailored to fit a man who was six feet, three inches tall, and who weighed about 200 pounds. His hair was dark brown, his eyes light blue-gray. He walked with the grace of a natural outdoorsman and rider. He carried himself with dignity and authority, as was proper for a wealthy landowner, political leader, and military commander. Although his many portraits show a man of thoughtful, even stern expression, his friends knew that Washington could unbend in company and enjoyed a good laugh.

Washington was one of the first colonials to suggest that the Americans resist British taxes. He proposed boycotting (not buying) British goods. His idea grew in popularity until the British governor of Virginia decided it was time to punish the leaders of the tax rebellion. In 1769 the House of Burgesses was closed, and the legislators were told to go home.

Instead, Washington began meeting with some of his friends in a Williamsburg tavern. The Americans' need to make decisions on their own would result in the creation of another, larger governmental body, called the Continental Congress. In April 1775, the tense situation came to a head when the British marched on Concord, Massachusetts, to seize American war supplies stored there. This was the first battle of the American Revolutionary War. At the Second Continental Congress in June 1775, Washington began attending sessions in his Virginia militia uniform to show that he was ready to take military action against the British.

Accepts generalship of American army

After the battle at Concord, the American soldiers pursued the fleeing British all the way back to their Boston headquarters and surrounded the city. The Second Continental Congress asked the colonies' best known soldier, George Washington, to take charge of the American forces. On June 16, Washington accepted the position of commander-in-chief of the Continental army. It was a job that would last through eight years of war, through the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, and the Treaty of Paris ending the war in 1783.

Washington had the right characteristics to make him a successful leader of the rebelling American colonies. As an experienced soldier, he was not afraid to take up arms to defend his rights. As the foremost colonial soldier, he saw it as his responsibility to teach his officers the art of war and how to conduct themselves as gentlemen. Realizing that his formal education was inadequate, he was open to other sources of information in new situations. For instance, during the bitter winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, in 1777–78, Washington welcomed Baron Frederick von Steuben, a professional Prussian (German) officer who drilled the American army into a skilled fighting unit. With von Steuben's help, Washington completed the work he had begun outside Boston, when he worked to shape the individual state militia units into a single Continental army. Washington also became close friends with the Marquis de Lafayette see entry, a young French aristocrat who joined Washington's staff early in the war. Washington was also a wonderful organizer, and could make the most of limited resources.

Most historians agree that Washington's real genius was in fighting a defensive rather than an offensive war. That is, Washington did not wage a fierce campaign to wipe out the British army (which he knew he could not do with his smaller, ill-equipped army). Instead, he kept the British generals from cornering, capturing, and defeating his army. He camped around Boston to force the British retreat from there in March 1776, thereby keeping hope of an American victory alive. He then anticipated the British move to New York, and moved the American army there to tie up the British forces. When the British marched on Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in September 1777, they found the Continental army blocking their path at Brandywine Creek. Washington did not always win his encounters with the British, but he did make sure that the British paid heavily in men and equipment for any gain they made.

Eventually, Washington moved his small army southward to Virginia, met up with General Lafayette's army, and confronted the British at Yorktown, Pennsylvania. With their backs to the sea, the British found that their navy could not rescue them. America's French allies and their twenty-four battleships had blocked the British access to the shore. On October 19, 1781, British General Lord Charles Cornwallis surrendered his army of more than 7,000 men to Washington, effectively ending the American Revolutionary War. For the next two years, Washington held his small army together until a peace treaty was signed. When Congress was slow to pay the American soldiers, one of Washington's officers suggested he become king and take over the new American nation. Washington reacted quickly and harshly, once and for all saying that America would be a democracy, not a monarchy.

Then in 1783, word came that the Treaty of Paris had been signed. Britain had publicly declared its loss of the American colonies. "Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theater of action, and bidding an affectionate farewell to this August [honored] body, under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take leave of all the employment of public life," he said to the Continental Congress. Then, at the age of fifty-one, Washington said good-bye to his officers and once again returned home to run his plantation.

Retires; recalled to Constitutional Convention

Washington seemed content to retire from public life and concentrate on being a gentleman farmer at Mount Vernon. He experimented with breeding mules, hunted foxes, entertained his plantation friends, and wrote letters to many of the leaders of the new nation.

Before long, it became clear that the new nation would again need Washington's leadership. The Articles of Confederation, the document that held the states together during the Revolutionary War, was failing to hold the country together after it. In May 1787 Washington became one of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The goal of the meeting was to draft a new document with rules for how the national government was to be run. The delegates unanimously elected Washington president of this convention.

By that summer, a new U.S. Constitution was drawn up and sent to the states for ratification (approval). It called for election of a president by the people, and provided for a method of making and changing laws through bills passed in a Congress that had two parts (the Senate and the House of Representatives). The Constitution also made sure there was a balance of power in government by having three branches with equal power, the presidency (executive branch), the Congress (legislative branch), and the Supreme Court (judicial branch). During the debate, Washington argued for the need for a strong federal government and suggested a larger House of Representatives, so more people could be involved in passing laws. By July 1788, the Constitution had been ratified, and a presidential election was held.

Elected first President of the United States

Not surprisingly, Washington was Congress's choice as first president of the United States of America (today, everyone votes in presidential elections). Washington took the oath of office on April 30, 1789, at Federal Hall in New York City, then the capital of the United States.

Washington's presidency was an uncharted course. "I walk, as it were, on untrodden ground," he said. Everything he did was without precedent (a previous example), and he could to a large extent define his job. He did so with deliberation and thoughtfulness, the way he approached every task in his life. "We are a young Nation, and have a character [reputation] to establish. It behooves us [we should] therefore to set out right for the first impressions will be lasting, indeed are all in all."

Washington tackled four major problems during his first term of office: 1) organizing the new government, 2) improving its relations with Great Britain, 3) getting its finances in order, and 4) making peace with the Indians, so westward expansion of the country could continue.

To help him organize the government, Washington quickly named a group of advisors that would become the first cabinet and included leaders such as Alexander Hamilton see entry as secretary of the treasury and General Henry Knox as secretary of war. Washington's goal was to stay out of the constant European wars, although this proved difficult because of the aid France had given America during the Revolutionary War. Under Washington, however, the United States did maintain neutrality (not taking sides) and this helped improve relations with Great Britain. Washington knew that the country could not grow financially until it had settled its war debts, so the federal government took on the debts the states had incurred during the war. He also encouraged establishment of a national bank and common system of money. And he tried to make peace with the Indians on the western frontier (Pennsylvania and Ohio). This was done first through trade treaties and later through the Indians' final defeat in fighting at Fallen Timbers near Toledo, Ohio, in 1794. At the end of his four-year term, Washington again believed his public service to be done and made plans to return home.

Reelected unanimously

Instead, Washington was reelected unanimously to a second term as president in 1792. In his second term of office, Washington encountered criticism, which hurt him deeply. He had given much of his life to defending and defining the new nation, and was unused to public criticism. But Washington had helped set up a nation in which public debate was encouraged, and differences of opinion were bound to flourish. One such difference arose between the Federalists (like Washington and Hamilton), who supported a strong federal government, and the Democratic-Republicans (or anti-Federalists, like Jefferson), who believed that the states should have more power in making decisions. This argument was the reason that political parties were formed. In fact, Washington was the only president who did not belong to a political party when elected.

Two highlights of Washington's second term dealt with presidential and governmental authority. In 1792 he used the first presidential veto to turn down a law proposed by Congress. Washington felt that the law would create more seats in government for the northern states. When the legislation was made more fair, Washington did sign it into law. In 1794 Washington demonstrated that the federal government was here to stay when he called up an army to defeat the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania, where citizens were protesting the new federal tax on whiskey.

Washington once again set precedent in 1796, when he refused to accept a third term as president. After giving his famous "Farewell Address" in March 1797, Washington returned home to Mount Vernon and his life as a farmer.

Retires to Mount Vernon

Washington's last years were lived peacefully at Mount Vernon in the company of his wife and friends. While riding over his estate in December 1799, he caught cold during a snowstorm. The cold worsened into a throat infection and he became severely ill. At the age of sixty-seven, George Washington died at home on December 14, 1799, and was buried at Mount Vernon. One of his friends gave him this epitaph: "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none." Washington is also known as the "Father of the Country."

Today we see much evidence of Washington's impact on the United States. A state is named for him, as is the national capital, Washington, D.C. He has universities, towns, counties, and even a national holiday named after him. The Washington monument on the Potomac River is the tallest allstone structure in the world. Washington's face is also pictured on the dollar bill, the quarter, and numerous stamps.

For More Information

Chase, Philander D. "George Washington." The American Revolution 1775-1783: An Encyclopedia. Vol. II: M-Z. Edited by Richard L. Blanco. New York: Garland Publishing, 1993, pp. 1733-49.

Fleming, Thomas. "The World Turned Upside Down: The American Revolution, Fighting for Independence, Pt. 3." Boys' Life, December 1997, pp. 22-26.

Meltzer, Milton. George Washington and the Birth of Our Nation. New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.

Wayne, Bennett, ed. "George Washington: Father of Freedom." The Founding Fathers. Champaign, IL: Garrard Publishing, 1975, pp. 57-103.

Whitney, David C., and Robin Vaughn Whitney. "George Washington: The First President of the United States." The American Presidents. 8th ed. Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest Association, 1996, pp. 1-16.

While Washington Was President

George Washington served as President of the United States for two terms, 1789 to 1796. His presidency was a time of great political, geographical, financial, and social change. Among the events that occurred or began during Washington's terms were:

1789

  • George Washington elected first President of United States of America
  • The French Revolution begins
  • North Carolina admitted to the Union
  • Postmaster General named, and a national postal system is established
  • U.S. Supreme Court begins its first session

1790

  • First U.S. Census conducted (population is approximately 4 million people)
  • Rhode Island admitted to the Union

1791

  • Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, adopted
  • Vermont admitted to the Union
  • Congress charters the First National Bank
  • Site on the Potomac River selected for national capital

1792

  • George Washington elected to a second term as President
  • Kentucky admitted to the Union
  • New York Stock exchange opened
  • Political parties established in the United States
  • U.S. Mint opened in Philadelphia, and a standard system of coinage was adopted
  • Washington exercised the first presidential veto, showing how the balance of power works among the three branches of government

1793

  • Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin (short for "engine"), making cotton a more profitable cash crop for the American South
  • Washington refused to side with France in its war with Britain (Neutrality Proclamation)
  • First official Cabinet Meeting showed the president could be open to advice• Fugitive Slave Act passed, allowing owners to hunt down escaped slaves across state boundaries

1794

  • Whiskey Rebellion put down, first test of the new federal government and its army
  • Ohio Valley opened for settlement by white pioneers following defeat of Indians at Fallen Timbers
  • Jay's Treaty settled the question of commerce with Great Britain

1795

  • First major turnpike completed, linking Philadelphia with Lancaster, Pennsylvania

1796

  • Tennessee admitted to the Union